An Interview with Teresa Keller

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When I originally posted about Teresa Keller, the single mom volunteering around the world with her kids for a year, the post immediately became one of the most controversial ones ever on this site.

The biggest controversy was that it appeared that the donations for which Teresa solicited were going toward paying for her family as to volunteer.  Since then, Teresa and I have emailed several times and I have learned that the family is paying for all personal and travel expenses.

Since the post was so popular, I offered her an opportunity to tell her story in an interview.  She very graciously accepted.  Here it is:

Money Questions

AK: To verify: you are personally paying for all travel expenses for you and your family, and when asking for charitable contributions, that is a separate account with a goal of $100,000 going exclusively to 12 charities. Is that correct?

TK: That is correct. We applied to the IRS for 501(c)3 status and they approved it, which means they have looked at all of our planned activities and budgets in detail and approve them as charitable. Contributions are therefore, fully tax deductible in the US. The donations are held in an account that belongs to the charity, not to me.

Are you paying for food and lodging at the places where you plan to volunteer?

Yes.

You said that you do have a financial cushion for your family, despite taking out a loan against your retirement account. Is this cushion in addition to the $125,000 set aside for travel? Are emergency funds part of the $125,000?

Emergency funds are part of our $125,000 budget, and the budget is purposefully high so that we do not find ourselves short of fund. We hope to spend less. This budget includes all living costs for a year, (health and travel insurance for example), not just travel costs.

Finally, how did you save $125,000 (or more) over the course of 15 months? Your site says that you sold possessions, but that’s such a large amount of money in such a small amount of time. What else did you do?

We moved out of our lovely 7 bedroom house and rented a two bedroom duplex. I finished two basement storage rooms to use as additional bedrooms. This and much lower discretionary spending helped us save about $3,500 per month – $52,500. I was making an executive salary as Executive Director of an international non-profit. I had about $8,000 in tax refunds for 2008 and 2009. We raised about $20,000 from selling our things. I am borrowing the other $44,500 from my 401k, which I will pay back over 5 years. I can borrow more than that, so that is another place to turn in an emergency. If we spend less, I will borrow less.

What is the plan after coming home? Where do you plan to live?

It depends on where I can find a job and input from the kids and my significant other, Doug Tilden. The kids would like to live in or close to Groton, MA, where we lived previously, and there are many job opportunities in non-profits in and around Boston as well as on the west coast. Doug lives on the west coast, but his daughter is moving and now both of his children are on the east coast.

There are a lot of factors, and this year is about learning. We would like to plan our next move as a family slowly and carefully, with the benefit of the experience of this year. I have a feeling we will all be changed people by next summer and our wants and needs may be different as well.

Family and Travel Questions

I feel like a lot of the criticism of you in the comments on the Boston.com piece was unfair. Did this criticism hurt you?

Yes, they did hurt at first. But I realize that many of them were based on the misunderstanding that we were raising money for our travel, which we are not.

When I was feeling hurt about the comments, I would get an e-mail about the community kitchen and day care we have already funded in Peru and the difference it is making for people there. Facing a little criticism is nothing compared to what the single moms in that community face in deciding whether to leave their small children alone all day to work or to stay home and not have enough money to buy food.

How have the kids adjusted to life on the road? Have they surprised you in any way?

I think they have surprised themselves!

My younger children had some very good reasons for not wanting to go – it’s tough to be away from friends and family and maybe face moving to a new town and making new friends. They also had the idea that foreign countries were weird…Once we started traveling they realized that not only are the difference positive in many cases, the similarities far outweigh the differences. This does my heart good.

The kids are falling into various roles on the trip. [My thirteen-year-old son] helps with budgeting and finding inexpensive eats.  [My eighteen-year-old daughter] is often the head navigator and is a great help with planning lessons and school work. [My friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter] is excellent at selecting the best hostels with low rates – so hard to do! [My twelve-year-old daughter] is a talented writer and sees the joy in little things.

We are starting with travel and working up to being in developing countries and volunteering. I felt the younger kids needed time to adjust, to enjoy themselves, to see that travel is not scary, before we get into an environment where they have responsibility to care for others.

How are you home-schooling the kids on the road?  Do you find it difficult to carve out time for studying with such a hectic travel schedule?

Its still summer vacation and this is the period of time we are traveling rapidly, so we only do lessons related to our travels until the start of the school year. Curriculum standards dictate that my younger children will learn world history and geography (perfect for our trip!), and we are teaching the language arts standards, in addition to the writing practice they will get in contributing to the blog.

We felt that science and math would be better done following an on-line course. I used to be a math teacher, so I can help them with whatever gives them trouble, and science is my favorite subject. [My oldest] will offer more day-to-day help with history and language arts as they are her favorite subjects. We are also doing some foreign language work.

We are also partnering with our school district to provide some teaching materials requested by the geography and world history teachers, which will be based on our travels and what we learn from the charities we visit on global issues like water, poverty, health care and education.

I know you went to Peru with Doug, but what other international travel have you done before this trip? What about the kids?

I had been to Peru three times, working with the government there to promote responsible archaeological tourism. I had also traveled through parts of Europe, and of course, Canada. I have worked with countless foreign scholars at AIA, helped to coordinate 300+ session international conferences in the US and Canada and have spoken at an international conference on responsible tourism and site preservation.

My partner, Doug Tilden has traveled and lived all over the world and he has helped us with the arrangements in countries with which we are unfamiliar. Children International has been a tremendous help with advice on where to stay and how to handle ourselves in India.

[My oldest daughter] has volunteered in India and we will return to that orphanage to volunteer as a family. They say you either love or hate India and she loved it and misses it, and the children at the orphanage very much. We also look forward to seeing our own sponsored child at the Children International community center where we will volunteer in Calcutta.

Is this your first long-term stint volunteering? Do you volunteer at home?

I have worked for over two decades for non-profits in health care, education and general public outreach. I always donated to the places for which I worked and put in an extra 20 hours or so per week to make sure we had an impact on the people we served. I am very proud that during my time as Executive Director of AIA we reach tens of thousands more children with face-to-face experiences (archaeology fairs, etc) teaching them about other cultures.

I considered this my volunteer work and didn’t have time for much else. What was missing was volunteering with my children. There is not much better to be had in life than trying to help others and trying to give of yourself. If I teach my children anything besides my own love for them, I want it to be the joy of giving.

What is the long-term plan for the nonprofit RTW With Us?

The long term plan will depend on the success of this year. If we meet our goals, and succeed in getting many people involved, we will be thrilled. If that is the case, we may select more quality projects and continue to provide people a vehicle to help. Our experiences from this year will lead us to narrow or change the areas where we select projects and/or the type of projects that we select.

You’ve mentioned an interest in writing a book. Are you a writer?

I dreamed of being a writer when I was a child. I used to stay in from recess some days and write – even though that option was doled out as punishment to other kids who had misbehaved.

But people dream of doing many things…some they end up doing and some they don’t. Getting a book published is difficult and one has to find the time to write it. I would say at this point that writing a book is unlikely.

Doug Tilden, one of the members of the Board of Directors, is traveling with you on the road. This was not mentioned in any of your press, though you do mention his presence in your blog. Do you avoid mentioning him because his presence doesn’t fit with the single-mom-traveling-with-her-kids narrative?

I mention it to the press as I do on the blog. I am extremely proud of Doug and the work he has done personally in the non-profit world and to help give children better life opportunities. The press decides what their take on it will be and one has little or no control over that.

Doug is joining us on parts of the trip, but it was always about me spending quality time experiencing the trip with my children, so he is careful just to visit periodically, even though it is tough to be even further from each other than when I was on the east coast and he on the west coast.

From what I’ve read on the site, it appears that the reasons for this trip were based around your desire for adventure and breaking away while at a crossroads in your life, and you figured out a way to work in the kids. By contrast, I’ve seen many family travelers build their trip around their kids’ needs. Do you feel like this trip is designed with the kids’ priorities first?

Having kids means putting them first, period. Sometimes, one gets caught up in career goals and missing one more dinner doesn’t seem that bad. But as I sat on a plane back from Peru, I realized that I had to change my life and spend more time with the kids before it was too late.

I had always worked extra hours, but at my last job, my work was right next to their school, our home was down the street and my hours were more flexible. I used to look out my office window and see them on the playground.

Once I moved to MA and commuted to Boston everything changed, and I was traveling to raise funds for AIA. It was time to make another huge change to get my life back on track.

Once it became clear to me that I had to leave my job to spend more time with my kids, I started to think bigger and the idea of traveling, and then volunteering came to me. The kids helped plan the places we would go and the charities we would help. Each child also got to select one special activity, for [my youngest] it is a multi-day horseback riding trip during our Bulgaria holidays.

Although the kids were reluctant before we left, that is common with kids and many new experiences, including leaving their moms to go to kindergarten. I was confident that once we began, they would love it and benefit greatly form the experience, and that has turned out to be the case. If they didn’t like traveling at all and weren’t benefiting, we would be heading home and continuing to raise funds from there.

They are now looking forward to each new country and experience, although of course, there are always difficult aspect of travel. As I write this, my 13-year-old son is urging me to finish so we can go explore Brussels!

How are the kids prepared to do volunteer work without any extrinsic rewards, especially during your long stint in Kolkata, a very difficult city in which to live and work?
My kids are very compassionate.  They were just born with a lot of empathy and feel the plight of others.  I think when they see how children are living and that they can make a small difference, that, and developing personal relationships with the kids will be its own reward.  In Kolkata, as in other places, we are working closely with our partner charity to make sure everyone, including members of the local community, have a good experience.

How will the kids’ father be staying in touch with them during the year?

Via Skype, phone calls when we are in countries where we can purchase SIM cards that make communications inexpensive, and with a visit to India to volunteer with us.

How do you plan to get away when you need a break from taking care of the kids?

I don’t need a break from caring for my kids.  This may be the case with moms who have infant children, but mine are older and being able to spend so much time with them is wonderful.

Questions from Adventurous Kate’s Readers

Priscilla from Weekend in Paris: Did the kids have the option of opting out of the trip and staying with their father, other family or friends?

The kids have always lived with me and they didn’t want to live with someone else so that option did not come up. I would not have gone on the trip without them. If they had objected to the trip enough to want to live with someone else (and people did offer that to them), I would have left my job for one with less hours to spend more time with them.

Katie from Katie Going Global: How did your daughter’s 17-year-old friend end up coming on this trip? Is her family paying for her travel expenses?

She isn’t my daughter’s friend, she is my best friend’s daughter.

She has a great desire to help people, so her mom and I discussed the possibility of her coming along on the trip. It seemed a perfect opportunity for her to learn much more than she could at home. Fortunately, a wonderful and generous family friend is able to pay her travel costs.

Claire: Unlike medical, business and educational professionals, you don’t have skills to bring volunteering. How does your unskilled labor for short periods of time benefit the recipients?

The skills I bring are not so much the ones on the ground, but the fundraising and administrative skills I have learned over the past two decades managing and raising funds for non-profits.

People like to think that on the ground volunteering is a great help, and done it the right way, it can be, but often it can have little impact, or even a negative impact on the local community. We have been careful to select opportunities where are volunteer work will be supportive of a local community helping themselves.

We will help with various childcare, manual and administrative tasks while we live at or near the sites, but the best thing we are doing is raising awareness of global issues and the ways ordinary people can help, showing the people in the local community that people care about them and that they have the power to change their own lives (as best we can), and providing much needed funds to projects.

Jenny: “If she wanted to spend a year abroad volunteering there are better ways to do it than hit 33 countries in 12 months, a daunting task in itself. She could hit 3-4 countries for 3-4 months each, that way she could still hit several places, but also do the most good in the area.” What are your thoughts on this?

If we were only offering our own labor, and if the whole point of the trip was volunteer work, this would be absolutely correct. The fact is that there are many goals for the trip, including spending time with my children and seeing the world together as best we can in a year. In some places we will only stay for a couple of days, in others, we will immerse ourselves for a month or more.

Our true goals include raising awareness and money for charities and getting as many people as possible involved in small ways. We felt that a variety of small projects would suit those goals better than 3 or 4 projects. We are doing projects that appeal to a wide variety of interests, from education to health care to reforestation. That will also help us learn much more about where we want to focus our efforts in the future. This trip is as much about learning what we can do over our lifetimes and what we can do in one year.

You can follow Teresa and her family at RTWwithus.org.

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